Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tips for New Paupers (a must read for non-Americans)

Unemployment. I thought I would never - ever- experience that. I had great Ivy League degrees, five languages, plenty of connections with the high and mighty and I was darn good at what I was doing. And then, one day, I got fired. Not for not doing my job, but for doing it. Doing it too well in fact.

That story still cannot be told, but I will sum it up like this: I was asked to analyze something by my boss, and analyze it I did. I even got it right, in fact. I warned the guys I was working for that they were in major and imminent danger of bad stuff happening to them. My boss passed my analysis to the higher ups and they absolutely *hated* it.

See, by its very nature my warning implied something which they really did not like: that I had seen something which they missed. And since their sacro-saint egos were just about the most important thing in the universe (at least to them), they got very angry at my boss who, as the spineless sniveling bitch that he was, immediately distanced himself from the analysis he had commissioned and signed and let me be the fall guy for the wrath of the folks at the top. They immediately fired me.

Things got a lot worse when within a short time my predictions fully materialized and some good people got killed in a very embarrassing event which got plenty of media coverage. Now my former bosses hated me even more: not only had I predicted something they totally denied, but I now knew that their incompetence had cost the lives of several good and innocent people and that the commission of inquiry they set up was bogus, little more than a deliberate cover-up.

I became a marked man once and forever. After several otherwise inexplicable events it became clear to me that I had been blacklisted (something two courageous friends actually confirmed to me later). I would never, ever find a job anywhere in Europe again. And from the social heights I had been used to I drop down to the bottomless abyss of unemployment. But unemployment "European style", not the obscene human rights violation which unemployment is in the USA.

My family was guaranteed a minimal income, enough to modestly make ends meet, I could keep our apartment, we were given free public transportation (which in Europe actually works rather well), our family was given free and *high quality* medical care (better than what most Americans *with* insurance get) and while we were not rich, we were not really poor either, at least not in a "destitute" sense.

But unemployment was still hell. Psychologically. This is something that I do not wish on my worst enemy. In fact, unemployment is *dangerous* as a lot of unemployed people end up sick, depressed, dependent on substances and many commit suicide. To escape this hell my family and I left Europe and moved to the USA were at least I could be a 'nobody' and disappear once and forever from the ever watchful eyes of my former bosses (who were more than happy to get rid of me).

My wife and I switched jobs. She works and I am now a full time homeschooling father of three (great) kids. We live close to the wonderful nature of Florida and my past has become mostly something which I only see in nightmares from time to time. I can live with that. We barely make ends meet, but at least we are far far away from the powerful of this world. Hopefully they will forget about us.

But this is not about me. This is about all the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs. Not only do they have to go through the hell which unemployment always is (and that is something which only a person who lived through it can fully understand), but they risk everything which we, in Europe, never risk loosing: healthcare, hygene, a decent place to live, etc. Add to this the social stigma of "living of government handouts" (how f**cking stupid that idea is: unemployment benefits are nothing more than a form of insurance which you pay for with your taxes) while being expected to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" (another idea only worthy of a Neanderthal). I have seen many Americans who lost their jobs and my heart goes out to them as they experience a tragedy which nobody else in the developed world ever has to face: the loss of a job entails the loss of basic human rights.

I just read this piece by John Dolan on the Exiled website and I want to share it, in particular with my non-American readers who probably cannot imagine what unemployment and poverty means in the USA.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between". From a social point of view this is absolutely true. The way the USA treats its poor, its sick, its unemployed and its prisoners is fundamentally un-civilized. The USA is the only developed country in the world which basically treats the poor, sick, unemployed as as people undeserving of respect, protection, care and support. The way the USA treats its prisoners makes the Taliban look outright progressive and civilized.

Anyway, let me get off my soapbox here and share with you the piece by John Dolan. Having lived in the USA for a total of 11 years now and having seen how the poor are treated here I can confirm the veracity of everything he writes here.

The Saker

Little did I know that when I lost everything last year, I was doing research. At the time I thought it was just stupidity or bad luck or both. But now that the economy’s crashing, it turns out I’ve been out there gathering valuable tips for millions of new paupers.

And let me clarify, I’m talking real poverty.

My wife and I fell through many layers of poverty in a few months. First we revisited the genteel poverty known to grad students, the sort of poverty where you have scary dreams about the rent and eat a simple, wholesome diet towards the end of the month. But we fell right through that into the sort of Dickensian privation spoiled first-worlders like me never expected to experience. That’s the kind of poverty a lot of people are going to be experiencing soon—because I’m here to tell you, it can happen here and it can happen to you. And it’s remarkably unpleasant. You may be saying “Duh!” here but you’re probably not imagining the proper sort of unpleasantness. So I’ll try to lay out what to watch for, how to hunker down when it’s not just a matter of cutting back or selling your second car but having no car at all, having no money for heat or food.

All the things we learned are going to seem pretty obvious, but remember that it’s very hard to think clearly when your life has collapsed. These are what they call the old verities, the truths of life before the middle class was (briefly) in session:

Warmth. Above all you need to have a dry warm place to sleep. We had only an unheated boat, and that was not enough. We woke up to the thump of sea ice banging against the hull and realized that the old world was still very much in session. When we finally fled to stay with family, we stayed in our blankets up against their gas fireplace for weeks. You won’t even want food much after a while. You’ll want heat itself, not the chemical middle man. You are going to realize that cold is the most frightening thing in the world. In older English dialects, “to starve” meant “to freeze.” You will see why.

Car. Got one? Maybe you should sell it. Cars drain the last dollars out of you. And there’s something worse: cops can smell desperation, and they hate the poor. I didn’t use to hate cops much, except drug cops, but God, I hate them now. The real purpose of cops is to keep poor people off the roads. That’s their only real goal. On my way to an interview for a job that could have gotten us out of the gutter, a cop stopped me because my insurance was two weeks overdue—for the simple reason we didn’t have money to pay it. She gave me a $600 ticket for that, plus $120 for not having an updated address on my driver’s license. Then she called for a tow truck and told me, “So, a lesson learned here today!” as I watched my car towed away and trudged off with our terrified dog down a typical Western suburban road: four lanes of fast traffic with no sidewalks. Are you poor? The cops are your enemy now. Accept it. The car is how they’ll try to get you. Sell it if you can—which is to say, if there’s any decent public transportation—hah!—where you live.

Shame. As in, forget about it. Shame is an affectation. I don’t even need to say this, really. Once you’ve experienced actual cold and hunger, your good old Ouldivai Gorge mammal body and brain will take over, and believe me, shame won’t be a problem.

You’ll also find that most of the social stuff is easier than you’d expect. These people are in show biz in a way; they have to be, just to survive. Makes them lively. And though I suppose it all depends on where you are when you lose out, in my experience they’re not especially violent. They talk about it a lot, but so do all the white jocks I ever met, and in neither case does anything actually happen. They’re flinchy people, mainly, who spend a lot of time waiting for things. When you’re waiting, you get very frustrated but you don’t want to shake things up. So they’re tense, bitter, sociable, gossipy and treacherous—a fine cross-section of the population. After waiting around with them in line at the local food bank, sharing “how I ended up here” stories and hanging out with them around a propane heater trying to stay warm, I relaxed a lot. They’re not going to mug you. They are going to try to get any cash you have, and God did they get a huge chunk of our last resources, but it was friendly, schmooze-based extortion, just like in the middle-class world. All that was missing was the deodorant.

Food Banks. These places, usually in the basement of a church (because churches are the only public institutions in the new suburbs of western North America) hand out baskets of groceries every week or, more often, two weeks. You have to wait a long time, so learn your refugee skills. Come early, get a number first, and be nice-but-pushy. It’s a delicate operation being nice-but-pushy, but you’ll learn it. The “nice” part is because you need to ask people for help and advice; you’re not rich enough to be solitary any more. The pushy part is simple: it’s to prevent you from being ignored. So always talk to people, but never show money or mention it, if you have any.

Antidepressants. Get on them right away, if you’re not already. If you are, up your dose. Because it’s going to hurt. Doesn’t matter how much Marxist theory you’ve absorbed, doesn’t matter that you can put your fall into global context; it’s happening to YOU now, and it’s going to hurt like you wouldn’t believe. You’re an American, and you share that culture’s values whether you like it or not. So you define yourself by your job, car and house. When they go, you’re going to hate yourself. Don’t even bother arguing about it. It’s going to happen. Just take the damn Prozac. Would you refuse a coat in Siberia? Refusing Prozac after falling into poverty makes about as much sense. Tom Cruise can go fuck himself. Prozac saved our lives. I won’t go into the sordid details but really, I don’t think we’d be here now if Saint Prozac hadn’t extended a sacred hand to us.

So the second you slip beneath genteel poverty toward the street, find the nearest Free Clinic, and don’t be deterred by the smell of the crowd in the waiting room. Smell is going to be a problem for you at first but after a few weeks you won’t mind, because you smell too and so does everyone around you. If you want a break from the relentless olfactory fact of being around unwashed large mammals, sidle up to somebody who smokes. That’s the one good thing about cigarettes, and it may be why losers all smoke. Don’t smoke just for that, though. Cigarettes are insanely expensive and turn lots of poor people into cringing beggars.
How do you tell your story? That’s going to matter, because you’ll be brooding about what went wrong 24/7.whether you want to or not. And you’ll find that explaining one’s great fall is a vital skill among the fallen, as well as a deeply satisfying pastime. This raises the issue of denial, a vital and deeply misunderstood mechanism. Denial, like Kurtz said about Terror, is your friend…or it is an enemy to be feared. You need some denial to keep your ego from being crushed completely. Your ego is going to get very sick, now that you’re nobody. It’s easy to be polite and self-deprecating when you’re winning. I used to be like that. You can’t afford that when you’re being crushed. Like the Cable Guy says, it’s prison rules. You have to demand respect if you expect to get it. The alternative is to dwindle away and disappear. Those antidepressants will help you deny the facts, but don’t be shy about doing ego-exercises, boasting practice, to reawaken that playground ego that so many of us polite middleclass types allowed to atrophy. You’re going to need it.

On a practical level, the question is what to jettison. And I’m not just talking about things. If you have kids…well, God help you; I can’t give advice here, because luckily we didn’t. But we did, unfortunately, have a dog, a big clumsy puppy we got just before everything fell apart. We probably should have given her up. Growing up in an atmosphere of terror and cold and self-hatred, she turned out to be a very weird, unhappy dog. I’ve had lots of dogs before this, back when I was comfy, and they were all nice suburban dogs, Frisbee-catching pals. This one’s a feral freak. Now that we have a warm place to live it’s almost fun watching her reactions, the way she flinches and sniffs at every noise, smell or flash of color, but I know she’d have been happier getting adopted by some family that complains about what a pain it is having just four bedrooms.

Besides, if you have a dog you’re cutting down on your chances of getting a job. This one howls when she’s left alone, another legacy of her traumatic puppyhood, so one of us had to stay with her most of the time. It was like being handcuffed to the wretched unheated ex-fishing boat we were living on.

The boat was another contributor to our debacle; it was something else we should have sold off right away, even at a 90% loss. The idea behind that damn boat was that instead of paying the insanely high west-coast rents, we’d live on the boat for free. This is a very bad idea. Any idea you have of retreating to some simple, free habitation should be regarded with deep doubt. The thing is, you can’t get back to the comfortable, heated world from a place like that boat. No internet. You need the net if you’re ever going to claw your way back. You need a working shower, which that boat lacked. Otherwise you develop that look, that smell you first encountered in the Free Clinic waiting room. It’s not a good look, job-wise. Maybe if we’d gotten rid of the dog I’d have had a chance.

But you lose more than that. You change completely, more than you realize, to the point that even if you get a break you can’t grab it. After months of applying for teaching jobs without even getting answers, the perfect job opened up for me at a local college. It was half creative writing, half teaching literature and composition, all my specialties. But when the interview started I realized I was no longer someone who could talk the quiet, polite, oblique version of self-promotion demanded by academic hiring committees. I was too deeply, permanently spooked by our condition. I was just plain wrong, unhireably wrong in every way. No hot water on the boat, and I needed to shave the graying wisps of hair on my big bald head, so I’d shaved in the McDonald’s men’s room on the way to the interview, with a cheap Bic shaver. You can guess the results: it looked like a bobcat had tried to roost on my scalp, and been evicted after a violent struggle. The used sport coat we’d spent our last $20 of Visa credit on at Value Village didn’t seem to fit nearly so well, once I was inside that humming, immaculate classroom where the interview was held. And I had become a louder, more desperate, excessive person. When I tried to sound positive, it came out furious. When they asked me, as I’d known they would, why someone who’d taught at bigger universities wanted to come to this small rural campus, I said truthfully, “I’d rather teach here in the forest than at Stanford.” It didn’t come out enthusiastic, it came out strident. After months of being a bum, I was the wrong volume, the wrong temperature. I could feel the job slipping away, and in fact they hired a local guy who was friends with the director, even though my cv kicked his cv’s ass.

You’ll find that if you want to get back into that quiet, odor-free, polite world, you’re going to have to decompress for a few months. What happened to us is that we fled, found a basement apartment on borrowed money, and stayed there, keeping the heat on high for months. Then we were ready to try again for a job.

It took that long to calm down, quiet down, lose a little of the bitterness. Yes, you’re going to be very bitter. You can’t hate yourself all the time; you have to switch off now and then and blame somebody else. In fact, somebody else may damn well be to blame. Just make sure the bitterness doesn’t keep you awake. To enable yourself to sleep, take long walks. Shout curses at the world if you need to, just keep walking. And no matter what, don’t sell your sleeping bag. I had a North Face down bag, and learned to love it way, way more than I loved myself.

Sleep is an antidepressant almost as good as Prozac. And it’s free. The time to worry is when you wake up after a couple of hours screaming. That happened to me after five months, and that’s when I broke down and asked my brother for a loan. That’s where this story diverges from a real street story: I had an out. And believe me, I took it. Should have taken it sooner, in fact.

If you have an out—a relative or friend who can lend you money to find a place to live—take it now. And as soon as you get an offer—some old friend has a ski cabin nobody’s using, or a small unit behind their house—take it, as long as it’s heated.

The old world is very much alive, and has it in for you. Do anything to keep it from killing you. The only reason I haven’t endorsed crime here is that from what I saw, paupers are not in a good position to try it. Like so much else, crime is for the big people.

This article first appeared in AlterNet.